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Q & A with Barbara Almond, MD, author of The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood

Posted by >>>>> on October 12, 2010


Lorna Garano



Q & A with Barbara Almond, MD, author of The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood

Barbara Almond, M.D., is the author of the groundbreaking new book, The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood (University of California Press, October 2010, hardcover). Almond is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice, a member of the faculty at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis, and Emeritus Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University.

Q. In your new book, The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood, you discuss the mixed feelings that all mothers occasionally harbor toward their children and about motherhood. First, what are some of the most common negative emotions that moms feel, and why do you think this is still such a taboo topic?

A. First of all, it is important to remember that ambivalence is a state of mind in which mixed feelings—love and hate—exist in relationship to other people, especially those people who are important in our psychic lives. The negative emotions that mothers feel are anger, frustration, and impatience when their children’s behaviors and demands impinge on their own needs. What is even more difficult to tolerate are the feelings that result from the negative side of ambivalence—anxiety, guilt, shame and depression. I think this topic is more taboo than ever because of the tremendous, and often exhausting demands of modern parenting, particularly modern mothering.

Q. You’ve said that moms should not feel ashamed of negative feelings and that, in fact, it means that they love their children deeply. Can you explain this?

A. Negative feelings are a normal part of motherhood, reflecting the demands of the mothering role; they are the opposite side of the deep love and attachment that most mothers feel. Both sides of this strong attachment are normal. Indifference does not lead to either positive or negative feelings.

Q. The title of your book, The Monster Within, refers to the common fear of having or creating a “monster” child. How does this fear reflect hidden feelings about motherhood?

A. Actually the title has two meanings. “The Monster Within” reflects a common fantasy that often emerges in the dreams of pregnant women in relationship to their fetus but it also reflects the mother’s feelings about herself for entertaining such a fantasy.

Q. These days, there’s an awful lot of pressure for moms to be perfect. In addition, women have been told for the last few decades that they can have it all: family, career, and active social life, etc. How are these social shifts reflected in the hidden side of motherhood?

A. I think the fantasy that they can “have it all” can be quite destructive to mothers, especially these days when women feel they are lacking if they do not “do it all.”  It can’t all be done without somebody paying a price in terms of anxiety, depression and guilt

Q. What is vampyric mothering?

A. Vampyric mothering refers to two different mother-child problems on the negative side of mothering. Mothers who use their children to satisfy their own needs and ambitions and to prop up their own self-esteem represent the less problematic form of vampyric mothering. The more malignant form exists when the mother needs to control the child’s mind and behaviors so thoroughly that the child feels incapable of his or her own decisions and individuality.

Q. You have a chapter on women who have done the unthinkable: kill their children and you discuss Andrea Yates and others. Of course, these are rare examples of women acting on the most extreme hidden feelings of motherhood. What drives women like Yates and what could have been done to intervene before they acted?

A. I feel that women who kill their children do so in very altered and desperate states of mind.  I believe that they are either psychotic or seriously dissociated at the time. Andrea Yates had serious post-partum depressions with her last two children. She was probably psychotic and certainly extremely overwhelmed by her life, when the murders occurred. She needed medical and psychiatric care, something she was probably not willing to do. Had she taken these measures, the murders probably would not have occurred.

Q. You say that women should strive to be “good-enough mothers.” What do you mean?

A. “Good-enough mothers” is a term used by the British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott. He had been a pediatrician, first, and was very interested in early mother-child bonding. He felt that no mothers could be perfectly attuned to their infants and children, but that good-enough mothers were deeply involved with their newborns and dedicated to their care and survival, even if hateful feelings occasionally intervened.

Q. Early in your book, The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood you say that “To be hated, sometimes, is a necessary part of the child’s growing awareness of separation and reality.” Can you explain?

A. Even the best mother in the world cannot always meet her child’s needs. If she did, children would never need to do things for themselves. They would bask in a warm maternal bath all their lives. But mothers do get angry, even hateful, and this gives the child the experience of being separate from his mother, and this makes him aware of outside reality and his need to cope with it.

Q. How can mothers cope with feelings that they are often too ashamed to admit that they have?

A. There are many ways to cope with these shameful feelings despite a society that condemns maternal ambivalence. Women have to realize that these feelings are normal and expected, that they are universal, that hateful feelings do not extinguish love. Talking to other mothers, to health professionals, to therapists, all of whom hopefully understand this, helps to normalize the negative side of maternal feelings.

Q. Throughout your book, you allude to representations of mothers in literature. A few of the books you mention are Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and The Millstone by Margaret Drabble. What are some common themes that you see in literary portraits of mothers, and how can fictional moms help us understand real-world ones?

A. You see everything in literary portraits of mothers, from angelic to demonic.  Writers all have or have had mothers, and the latter have usually had a profound influence on them. Even if writers are not conscious of all the meanings of what they write, these meanings come through. We read to find out how others cope with the big questions in life. Fictional moms are not “real” but there is usually a real mother behind them!







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